by David Granville
AS I'VE pointed out on previous occasions, the legacy of the British state's counter-insurgency activities in Ireland throughout the last three decades of the 20th century continues to cast a murky shadow with serious implications for democracy in Britain and for the way in which we conduct, and are seen to conduct, our affairs around the world.
Media coverage surrounding the recent Northern Ireland police Ombudsman's report which identified widespread collusion between British security forces and loyalist death squads in the 1990s may have resembled the behaviour of the tropical Amorphophallus titanium, or Corpse Flower - it takes years to bloom, stinks of rotting flesh and then dies down within a matter of days.
However, one particular aspect of this most recent collusion scandal, concerning the conduct of the current head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, the twice 'honoured' former Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan, received particularly scant attention in the mainstream media on this side of the Irish Sea - Channel 4's interview with Peter Hain on 22nd January being the only exception which readily springs to mind.
The Inspectorate is charged with examining and improving the efficiency of the police service in England and Wales as Chief Inspector of Constabulary Flanagan is the Home Secretary's principal professional policing advisor.
Speaking to the Irish press in the wake of the Ombudsman's damning report, Flanagan, who spent a significant portion of his police career in Special Branch before succeeding Sir Hugh Annesley as RUC chief constable in 1996, categorically denied any knowledge of collusion between RUC officers and the loyalist terror gang whilst he was in charge.
More than a few eyebrows were raised at the vehemence of Flanagan's denial given his involvement with Special Branch over many years, including several where he was responsible for the selection, training and operational control of officers serving in specialist 'anti-terrorist' units.
Flanagan was appointed head of Special Branch in 1994 and finally reached the top of the RUC tree after serving briefly in a number of other key positions within the force between 1992 and 1996 - including as assistant chief constable in charge of the RUC's Operations Department and as Operational Commander for the Belfast region and, finally, before his elevation to Chief Constable status, as Deputy Chief Constable.
Given Flanagan's Special Branch background and the seniority of his various positions within the RUC, his claims to be ignorant of the massive and widespread criminality, up to and including murder, which resulted directly from Special Branch's modus operandi in relation to the recruitment and handling of paid agents from among loyalist and republican groups, lacks credibility.
Or, as Raymond McCord snr, the Belfast Protestant who lodged the original complaint which led to the recent Ombudsman's report on collusion between Special Branch and the Ulster Volunteer Force, put it at a recent conference on collusion in Belfast:
"If he's trying to tell us he didn't know what was going on, he was a very poor chief constable and he shouldn't be in the position that he is now. If he did know what was going on, charges should be brought against him and he should be stripped of his knighthood."
McCord insists that he raised serious concerns about Mark Haddock, the loyalist terror gang leader and Special Branch agent responsible for his son's murder, during a meeting with Flanagan as early as 1988, or possibly 1989. His son, Raymond McCord jnr, was murdered by Haddock in 1997. Haddock was directly implicated in at least 10 murders, and numerous other crimes, over a ten-year period from 1991 to 2003. He is currently serving a ten-year sentence for an attack on a nightclub doorman.
McCord snr also contacted the Stevens Inquiry team, which was investigating collusion, in September 2000. He was told that his concerns had been passed on to Flanagan and that an Assistant Chief Constable would be looking into them.
McCord's claims that Flanagan had been alerted to concerns over Haddock have been corroborated by no less a figure than the current Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, who at that time was part of the Stevens investigation team.
Further clouds hang over Flanagan in relation to the circumstances surrounding the death of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson and the subsequent police investigation and over the failure of Special Branch officers to pass on vital information from an informer which could have prevented the Omagh bombing.
There are also serious questions to be answered concerning the use of paid agents and informers from within Sinn Fein and the IRA, in which Special Branch and the notorious army intelligence unit, the Force Research Unit (now renamed the Joint Support Group and serving in Iraq) both played a prominent role.
Understandably, given that much of the hard collusion evidence to have surfaced to date involves Special Branch officers and relates to periods when Ronnie Flanagan was in senior positions within the RUC, calls for him to stand down or be removed from his position as the British government's chief advisor on policing have been widespread in Ireland.
Victims' families, human rights groups and a variety of parties across the political spectrum - though not from the main unionist parties, which continue to stand four square with Flanagan, as does the British government and former ministers such as John Reid - have all called for him to resign or be sacked.
In the wake of the Northern Ireland police Ombudsman's collusion report, former Irish Labour Party party leader Ruairi Quinn has been among those south of the border to have demanded to know why Flanagan was selected as part of a team tasked with choosing the best person to head up the Garda Siochana's own Inspectorate.
However, while there are clear signs that the Irish government is deeply concerned about the issue of collusion, it too is sticking by Flanagan's involvement in selecting the 26-county state's own police Inspectorate head.
What would be altogether more encouraging would be to hear voices from within the British Labour Party and from within the broader labour, trade union and democratic movement here in Britain raising the same sort of concerns and demands.
It's immoral, cowardly and politically unacceptable for us to leave it all up to human rights groups like the Pat Finucane Centre, the Committee for the Administration of Justice, Justice for the Forgotten, Relatives for Justice and British Irish Rights Watch - important though the work of these groups undoubtedly is.
If we are to begin to challenge the legacy of Britain's malign involvement in Ireland and to emerge with any credit at all, the issue of collusion must be tackled head on here in Britain as well as in Ireland. I have no doubt that this is central to forging, over time, a new set of relations between Britain and Ireland based on trust, co-operation, mutual respect and an end to Britain's colonial involvement in our neighbour to the west.
If we are serious about this we must add our voices to those in Ireland who are calling for the removal of Ronnie Flanagan as the head of Britain's police Inspectorate. We should also give our backing to those calling for full disclosure on collusion and for an end to the obstructionist stance adopted by successive British governments in relation to collusion inquiries.
This is particularly important given that it's now widely accepted that the recent Ombudsnman's report only represent the tip of an iceberg.
This should be done, not just as an act of solidarity but in our own interest. There can be little doubt that the presence of someone like Flanagan as the government's most senior advisor on policing is, at the very least, incongruous and unacceptable. Many of those killed or injured as a result of collusion were uninvolved in the conflict. Too many were simply the victims of sectarian violence, encouraged, paid and protected by police and military intelligence.
Despite Sir Ronnie's protestations, the RUC's Special Branch was at the nexus of this abomination and people here in Britain need to ask themselves if this is the sort of police officer we really want to be in charge of advising our government on such an crucial matter to our daily lives.
Through truth and openness, and by supporting those who are demanding to know how and why the British state colluded in violent and often murderous attacks against those who were supposedly its 'subjects', we can yet strive to build meaningful reconciliation and solidarity between the peoples of these islands. And that's in all our interests.
The above article originally appeared in the Morning Star on 05.03.2007.
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Copyright © 2007 David Granville